What Is the Political Payoff of Proposing Social Security Cuts?

Michael Stephens | April 10, 2013

The President’s budget has arrived and, as reported, it does contain proposed cuts to Social Security (through adopting a different measure of inflation called “chained CPI”).  The emerging consensus seems to be that this is mainly intended as a political/messaging ploy.  The idea here is that Republicans are extremely unlikely to make a deal that contains any revenue increases on high-income-earners; even one that includes the entitlement cuts they have (sort of) demanded.  As a result of the President putting these cuts on the table in so public a fashion, so the theory goes, centrist op-ed writers will finally drop the false equivalence and declare that Republicans are being intransigent and are not negotiating in good faith toward a grand deficit-reduction bargain.

Paul Krugman points out that this is an exceedingly unlikely scenario.  But even if DC pundits play along, here’s a question about this gambit that I don’t think has an obvious answer:  what’s supposed to happen next?  What’s meant to be the tangible payoff of the new narrative that would be created by all these editorial spankings?

Put it this way.  What will have a bigger impact on a (generally more elderly) midterm electorate in 2014:  ads about Republican obstinacy featuring sorrowful quotations from Fred Hiatt, or ads savaging Democrats for trying to slash Social Security?  Charges of hypocrisy are unlikely to carry much weight with an electorate that suffers no cognitive discomfort in demanding that “spending” be cut but “Social Security” preserved or strengthened, and they’re even less likely to work if a voter is unaware that Republicans have even mentioned chained CPI as part of their wish list.  In fact, it’s hard to see how the overall message wouldn’t just boil down to this:  Republicans are being stubborn … in refusing to go along with very unpopular cuts.  How many more House and Senate seats will that deliver to the President’s party?


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